I cannot claim it to be universal law, but I often find the friendliness and hospitality of a country’s inhabitants to be inversely proportionate to their recent troubles. So it was when I snuck behind Burma’s iron curtain in 2005 where, despite (or because of) the brutal military rule, the locals were overjoyed to see someone taking an interest in their country and keen to show off its natural beauty and unique culture. And once again when I was posted to Kabul three years after the Taliban were removed from power in the wake of 9/11; it was a fragile, artificial peace dependant on the presence of international security forces and yet the Afghans I met were unfailingly charming and hospitable.
And so too now in Pristina, where my first impression was a hotel owner coming to rescue me from a café after the arcane street numbering had defeated my attempts to check-in and then inviting me for drinks that night at the local Christmas market. This set the tone for unfailingly friendly and courteous service in the city’s restaurants and tea houses, social hubs abuzz with excited chatter and positivity.
I remember vividly the coverage of the Kosovo conflict in the late 90s and later, as a young Balkans desk officer at the Foreign Office, I became well-versed in the region’s politics, security challenges and ethnic tensions. Just as the drama of that conflict remains with me, so too are its scars still evident in the country itself, from bombed out Yugoslav military bases to a memorial where the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army was killed. These are badges of honour for the country, symbolising the sacrifices of its people and their will to endure. I sensed a people at rest with their troubled past and determined to face the future with optimism, a sentiment neatly encapsulated in Pristina’s “Newborn” Monument: unveiled in 2008 on the day that Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, the giant capital letters spelling out “Newborn” are so powerful in their simplicity.
Another connected law that is not a law is that in such places sights are cherished and celebrated no matter how modest they might seem in global terms, not only by locals fiercely proud and protective of their remaining heritage but also by those more inquisitive visitors keen to get under the skin of a post-conflict society; both sides are inoculated against that blasé attitude prevalent in more touristy locations where visitors focus on checking off sights and taking selfies for Instagram while locals try to fleece such distracted individuals for all they are worth. Here in Kosovo, both parties are united in an appreciation that the very survival of any sights is a miracle to be celebrated in its own right.
My visit to a museum showcasing two typical Ottoman houses was a case in point. The larger of the houses was closed for refurbishment, which diminished the range of treasures on display but not the guide’s enthusiasm. Asking nothing in return, he generously gave of his time to explain the function of the various rooms and their objects as well as to paint a picture of life under the Ottomans. That evening strolling along the main pedestrianised street, I was bedazzled by the most resplendent display of Christmas lights that I saw anywhere in the Balkans. I emerged blinking into a square where locals thronged around a Christmas market tasting local delicacies, drinking mulled wine and leaving the cares of their troubled past behind. A new friend grabbed my arm and steered me into the midst of the revelry and I too began to believe that even history’s most gaping wounds may be healed.
Credit for featured image: Prizren by Brilliant Eye on Shutterstock